The Evolution of Alpha Achievers

dbarrettAfter a 30 year career as a computer programmer and manager in the information technology sector, David H. Barrett became a mathematics teacher in the HCPSS, currently with Homewood Center. Barrett has been an active member of the community, sitting on several boards and active in multiple organizations. As co-founder of the Howard County program, Barrett writes about the origins and evolution of the local Alpha Achievers, a nationally recognized program promoting character growth and academic excellence for African-American males.

Co-founded by three men of the Howard County Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Alpha Achievers program was established in 1997 at Oakland Mills High School. The men sensed a need to provide support to African-American high school males who had broken free of the negative stereotypes so often associated with them. Using the fraternity’s informal partnership already in place at Oakland Mills as an entry point, the men presented to the principal, Marshall Peterson, the idea of an academic club that would be a cadre of young scholars setting an example of academic excellence for themselves as well as the school community. It was decided that the minimum GPA for membership would be 3.0 and that each member would commit to 21 hours per year of community service.

Mr. Peterson recruited Oakland Mills history teacher, Mr. Vincent James, to be the group’s advisor. We started with the 18 young men who met the 3.0 GPA requirement. The program was quite simple.  Once a month, we featured a professional African-American male who would tell his story, field questions and encourage the young men to continue their pursuit of excellence.

That summer a few of the young men contacted Mr. James. They wanted him to know that while they appreciated what the Alphas had done for them, they wanted to take over the program and run it themselves and let the Alpha men be community advisors. That was a welcome development because it was what we had hoped would happen. We just did not think it would be so soon. But the young men got busy and by the time school started had developed by-laws, policies and procedures to guide the fledgling organization. In the interim the Alphas found money in their budget to fund some modest outings, including field trips to see a Romare Bearden exhibit at the Smithsonian, two August Wilson plays and an author reading. The goal was to give them a cultural grounding they had not experienced in the HCPSS. Many had not ever seen a play by an African-American playwright or an art exhibit by an African-American artist. The young men decided the program should promote character growth, develop leadership skills and encourage members to become full citizens of the school and the community. A formal induction ceremony was designed to welcome the group’s new members. In the ceremony the young men light one candle for each of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa). The principles are a guide to healthy living and social responsibility to community. At the conclusion of the ceremony, all of the Achievers recite the declaration, Determination.

By 2001, the ranks of the Oakland Mills group had grown to 45, and Long Reach with 25 members became the second school to have the program. By 2010 all 12 high schools had an Achievers chapter and in 2013 membership reached a little more than 400. The Oakland Mills group had begun to attract students from Latino and Asian communities who proclaimed it the only organization that welcomed them for who they were. This is nowhere more apparent than in their rising to positions of leadership. The Achievers experience inspired them to look more deeply into their own heritages.

The Alpha Achievers have made two 12-day trips to Ghana, West Africa for an educational and cultural experience during which time they visited the tombs of W.E.B. DuBois and Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. They also visited the slave dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast, and spent time with people of the Ashanti ethnic group and a Wilde Lake High School graduate and his family who live in Accra, Ghana.

The Alpha Achievers are a conspicuous presence in the HCPSS and beyond. They have been recognized and honored by the HCPSS, MSDE, the Eastern Region of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Horizon Foundation, the Local Children’s Board and the Waring-Mitchell Law Society. It is estimated that since its inception, the group has delivered nearly 70,000 hours of community service.

Learning French Through Lunch

Thomas enjoying pizza in Syracuse, Italy.

Thomas enjoying pizza in Syracuse, Italy.

Thomas Regnante is a junior at Centennial High School and an award winning food blogger. He is the co-founder, with his brother Charles, of the 2 Dudes Who Love Food blog. For over four and a half years, Thomas has written restaurant reviews, created how-to-cook videos and participated in food philanthropy. In 2014, Baltimore Magazine recognized 2 Dudes Who Love Food as the Best Food Blog. In this post, Thomas discusses a visit to the Petit Louis Bistro restaurant in connection to Ms. Doff’s French class and world language experiences at school.

Arranged by my high school French teacher Madame Doff, Petit Louis welcomed my French class for a 3-course lunch to introduce us to French cuisine. During the course of two days, Petit Louis served lunch to over 200 French students from Centennial High School. It was a fantastic experience!

At Petit Louis, my classmates and I were given an opportunity to use French outside of the classroom. My friends and I were able to apply what we learned in French class to speak in French to the waiters. Having this experience made me and my friends excited to know that we could use our knowledge in the real world. I was able to say what I wanted to eat and drink in French, and the waiters comprehended what I was saying. Although we speak in French class all the time, it felt nice knowing that I could use French outside the classroom in the community.

As a food blogger, I know the importance of the culinary arts. That’s why it was so cool to realize how intertwined and connected the cuisine of a country is to that of a country’s language and culture. This realization is especially crucial considering that students aren’t just learning about the language in a world language class, but also about the culture, cuisine and atmosphere that the language is spoken in. So it is essential that students have a better understanding of the French cuisine to improve their French linguistic skills and learn more about French culture.

Check out my original blog post about Petit Louis.

Moving Forward with Canvas

GraceChesneyAn educator for more than 20 years, E. Grace Chesney is the chief accountability officer of the Howard County Public School System. She has enjoyed the process of bringing Canvas to the HCPSS, with the support of staff, students and the community.

It’s hard to believe that just last fall our school system was beginning to develop curriculum in the Canvas Learning Management System, our digital platform for classroom tools in HCPSS Connect. Thanks to the collaboration of staff, students and community members throughout our system and county we’ve come a long way to better extend the classroom online.

Our team has continuously improved Canvas to fulfill the specific needs of our school system. Our Canvas strategic plan is built upon the feedback we’ve received from many of you, as well as from best practices shared with us from districts around the country. Since the launch we’ve continued to focus on adding features and expanding user access, while making the online learning platform easier to use.

Here are a few highlights. In November, students and parents began to access a consolidated view of real time quarter grades for up-to-the-minute updates on academic progress. We expanded Canvas access for school-based staff, such as administrators, counselors, and special educators, so they can view their students’ real time courses, grades and assignments in order to better support them. We organized information to simplify the user experience, such as by recently adding a grading period filter on the assignments page, so students, teachers and parents can now view assignments by quarter.

I’m proud to see that Canvas is being widely used throughout the system, with an average of 1.2 million pageviews per week. Our school system community is logging in during the school day as well as in the evenings, using the platform in a variety of ways. We’re also seeing a healthy mix of new and repeat users, with 20 percent discovering the platform for the first time and 80 percent repeatedly incorporating Canvas into their HCPSS experience.

HCPSS will continue to add curriculum content, explore new functionalities and features, and make Canvas a more efficient platform to use. We’re proud to already have 12,260 active courses in Canvas–at all grade levels and in all content areas–and we look forward to adding even more by next school year. I’m glad to see our community get excited about what’s possible with Canvas, as internal departments and groups are looking into how the platform can support their programs. Finally, we will continue to work on improving the user interface and mobile app for better ease of use.

Together, we can continue to make Canvas a better resource for families, students and school staff for improved communication and collaboration, and ultimately, an enhanced learning environment. I welcome you to find out more and provide feedback on Canvas by visiting